- 1Growth models for body mass and length were fitted to data collected from 1842 sea otters Enhydra lutris shot or live-captured throughout south-west Alaska between 1967 and 2004. Growth curves were constructed for each of two main year groups: 1967–71 when the population was at or near carrying capacity and 1992–97 when the population was in steep decline. Analyses of data collected from animals caught during 2004, when the population density was very low, were precluded by a small sample size and consequently only examined incidentally to the main growth curves.
- 2Growth curves demonstrated a significant increase in body mass and body length at age in the 1990s. Asymptotic values of body mass were 12–18% higher in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s, and asymptotic values for body length were 10–11% higher between the same periods. Data collected in 2004 suggest a continued increase in body size, with nearly all data points for mass and length falling significantly above the 1990s growth curves.
- 3In addition to larger asymptotic values for mass and length, the rate of growth towards asymptotic values was more rapid in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s: sea otters reached 95% of asymptotic body mass and body length 1–2 years earlier in the 1990s.
- 4Body condition (as measured by the log mass/log length ratio) was significantly greater in males than in females. There was also an increasing trend from the 1960s/70s through 2004 despite much year-to-year variation.
- 5Population age structures differed significantly between the 1960s/70s and the 1990s with the latter distribution skewed toward younger age classes (indicating an altered lx function) suggesting almost complete relaxation of age-dependent mortality patterns (i.e. those typical of food-limited populations).
- 6This study spanned a period of time over which the population status of sea otters in the Aleutian archipelago declined precipitously from levels at or near equilibrium densities at some islands in the 1960s/70s to < 5% of estimated carrying capacity by the late 1990s. The results of this study indicate an improved overall health of sea otters over the period of decline and suggest that limited nutritional resources were not the cause of the observed reduced population abundance. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the decline was caused by increased killer whale predation.